I can’t read Agatha Christie, or J.K. Rawlings, or Harold Robbins, or Robert Ludnum, or Dan Brown, or Ken Follet. I just can’t. I find them all such bad writers, such poor craftsmen and women, such dealers in cliché, such essentially unobservant and pedantic peddlers of worn-out piffle as to be unreadable. I can’t go along with the story line because it’s either hackneyed or ridiculous and I can’t summon the remotest interest in their characters.
I can’t write fiction either, but I can certainly learn from those who do it well. I can learn from Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo and Robert Ford, and Julian Barnes, and Ian McEwan and Martin Amis. Each one has a special talent for using words, for building a narrative, for making you think.
Academic writing should have exactly the same characteristics. Widdowson writes well; Jeremy Harmer doesn’t. Skehan writes well; Susan Carroll, alas, dos not. Some, like Nunan, write passably with nothing to distinguish themselves, while others, like Breen and Krashen, grab you and hold you. What’s the difference? We enter the world of literary criticism, and here, like similar debates about the relative merits of Chopin versus Bach, or Turner versus Constable, there is a canon to refer to. Most critics, those self-appointed arbiters, think that Dickens’ Bleak House is better than The Old Curiosity Shop, for example, and they can explain why. Similarly, in the sphere of academic writing, I can explain why I think Kevin Gregg writes better than Rod Ellis about SLA.
It’s to do with style. Literary style has various elements, and, with reference to academic writing we might include:
1. Sentence Structure: Are the sentences long or short? Why do they change? Do they contain many subordinate clauses, or are they often fragments? Are there any digressions or interruptions? Is the word-order straightforward or unconventionally crafted?
2. Pace: Is the writing heavily descriptive, or does it focus on movement?
3. Expansive/Economical Diction: Is the writing tight and efficient, or elaborate and long-winded?
4. Vocabulary: Are the words simple or obscure? Are they technical, flowery, colloquial, cerebral, punning (and so on…)?
5. Figures of speech: Are there any metaphors, similes, or symbols? Do they help the argument or are they just blather?
6. Tone: What is your attitude? Whatever the tone, where is it visible in the narrative?
7. Word Color, Word Sound: How much does the language call attention to the quality of its sound, e.g. through alliteration, assonance, consonance, dissonance, rhythm, unusual word choice, and so on?
8. Paragraph / Chapter Structure: Are paragraphs less than a page long at most? Are chapters short or long? How many are there, how are they organized, and why have you done them like this?
9 Time Sequencing / Chronology: How do you organize the chronology of events? To what effect? What is the work’s structural “rhythm”?
In the end, there’s no accounting for taste! Thus, the criteria by which those of you handing in papers as part of your MA course are judged are supposed to be “objective”: you are judged on such seemingly easily-agreed matters as coherence and cohesion. Markers are not supposed to be impressed by a witty turn of phrase or a clever juxtaposition of ideas; they are told to concentrate on more mundane matters such as the number of relevant references you make, and your ability to subject your data to good statistical analysis. But let me tell you: style matters. If you write well, if you display an ability to express yourself well, if you develop a style that suits you, if you are not just articulate but inventive, if you give your paper a twist, if you, one way or another, engage the reader, you’ll do better.
Martin Amis said “When you read Pride and Prejudice, if you’re a woman, don’t identify with Elizabeth Bennet, and if you’re a man, don’t identify with Fitzwilliam Darcy. In both cases, identify with Jane Austen. Identify with the author, not the character, think “What’s the author trying to do?”” That’s splendid advice on reading, and it can be applied to writing: think “Am I telling the reader what I’m trying to do?”.
Some advice on academic writing:
1. Be Fresh. Find an angle, a new way of looking at all the required stuff.
2. Find Your Voice. Write the way you talk. Naturally.
3. Write for the ear. Even when you are reading something on the page, you’re hearing it silently. Read your paper out loud before you submit it. If your tongue trips over something, your brain will, too.
4. Try this: when drafting your work, record your voice as you spontaneously talk about the topic. Then transcribe your comments, and base your writing on the transcription.
5. Be Concise. Write tight. As Charlie Parker said: “When in doubt, leave it out!”
6. Tell a story. Academic papers have a narrative, however much editors of academic journals might deny it.
7. Be Thorough. Writing is the easy part; it’s the revision that makes or breaks your project — and requires most of your effort.